Before I move off the subject of contextual embedding, I want to write about one more way in which context is a useful tool for writers, and that is in how it relates to point-of-view.
Any aspiring author who spends time in critique groups or on critique sites gets point-of-view issues beaten into their brain. For many writers, picking a point-of-view and sticking with it is one of the fundamentals of good writing. Some best-selling writers violate those rules all the time (Nora Roberts), but we should probably wait to do the same until we’re regularly hitting the best-seller lists. 🙂 Still, the idea of maintaining a clear POV isn’t complicated and it’s not hard. Basically, if you’re writing in first-person or limited third, the only information you can reveal to your reader is the information that your character has available to them. Straightforward, right?
You’re seeing out of your character’s eyes, hearing with her ears, smelling with her nose… and perceiving the world from the context of her brain.
I hate describing settings. I’m not a visual person, I don’t have a good memory for sights, and I don’t tend to notice a lot about the space I’m in. If someone stole into my house and turned all my pictures upside-down, it would take me weeks to realize what had happened. (Well, I’d probably never realize, because it wouldn’t occur to me that someone would do such a strange thing. But it would take me weeks to see that my artwork didn’t look right.) And it used to be that every time I hit a place in a story where I thought, “Ugh, new setting, I have to describe it,” I got stuck.
Writing one paragraph of description would take me about the same time as three pages of dialog and sometimes much longer. Those spots for me were dead spots and most of them in every book have been edited and rewritten and edited and rewritten some more. One of my fundamental rules as a writer is to skip the boring stuff. If I would start to skim as a reader, then I don’t want to include it in my books. I try to follow Kurt Vonnegut’s advice–every sentence should either advance the plot or reveal character.
But describing the setting is our essential contextual embedding, right? For a reader to feel that a story is “real,” they have to feel grounded, they have to have some idea about where they are, what the place is like. True. But if you approach your setting from the context of your POV character, you can also use your descriptive sentences to reveal character.
Let’s look at an example from A Gift of Thought:
“He smiled down at her, putting his hand over hers as they walked toward the low steps that led into the building. Automatically, Sylvie assessed the space. Three, no, at least four stories, with what looked like an open balcony on the front of the fourth floor. Multiple doors in the front wall meant too many entrances to easily defend, while pillars every ten feet or so could be useful hiding places or annoying visibility issues. On the left, the sidewalk sloped and the portico became a patio, a dead end unless you were willing to jump the railing to the street below.”
That paragraph once read something more like, “The building was x, y, z.” It was a new setting. I needed the reader to have some sense of the place, specifically its size and exits for when Rachel disappears. But the words were flat and dull and boring. I could barely read them myself without starting to skim.
The solution was to approach my contextual embedding from the context of Sylvie’s brain. Instead of simply describing the building, I tried to look at it as Sylvie would see it, and Sylvie sees everything tactically. As a Marine and a bodyguard, she cares about line of sight and exits. Now, all of a sudden, my description is still conveying the essential information I needed to get across, plus it reveals Sylvie’s character (or reinforces it, anyway), plus it becomes–for me at least–a much more readable wall of information.
For experienced writers or people in MFA programs, this all might seem completely obvious. Of course you can only know what your point-of-view character knows. But seeing with your POV character’s eyes also means thinking with her brain, noticing with her background, observing from the context of her past. A guy on reddit put it really well once–and alas, I cannot find his name and will paraphrase him badly. But he said something like a rose bush with one rose on it can be either a delightful surprise, a last glimpse of summer, or a sad survivor of the ravages of autumn. The choice should give the reader insight into the POV character, not into the author.
Tomorrow: Interactions and how “true” in CBCA terms and “right” in writer terms sometimes collide. Well, or maybe Monday. The household chores are piling up and my allergies will get a lot happier when I get rid of some of the dust in my house. 🙂